Family ties go beyond blood and law
If you turn left upon entering the Weatherspoon Art Museum’s spacious upstairs gallery, one of the first sets of images you’ll see is David Hilliard’s “Rock Bottom,” a triptych depicting what appears to be a father and son with matching sparrow tattoos on their chests standing navel-deep in a lake, water ebbing between them in the middle panel.
With about 30 years between them, the older man is graying while his progeny appears to have only recently grasped a tenuous hold on adulthood; he may now be a father himself. The title hints at a history of personal struggles, but in the context of the setting, it also literally references a position of surety. The water suffuses the image with a haunting sense of time passed or perhaps lost in the relationship. Between them there appears to be an eternity of both uncertainty and regret.
From there, the kids are alright explodes outward in a kaleidoscope of pathos, humor, poignancy, tenderness, sadness and compassion.
The exhibit is engrossing, but never overwhelming, showcasing two to five images by each of the 38 featured photographers.
The effect for the viewer is a controlled sequence of bursts from multiple locations of identity, experience and condition.
Some of the images, such as “Dinner” by Lisa Lindvay, which depicts a balding father flanked by two long-haired teenage boys sharing a McDonalds meal, appear at first glance to be a staged spoof on family dysfunction. But once the viewer reads that the images depict the lives of the photographer’s father and halfbrothers as they deal with the mother’s declining mental state, she will immediately recognize their authenticity. Further, she will likely not laugh at or judge the empty soda bottles and other detritus stuffed under one of the boys’ bunk bed in a companion image.
The traveling exhibit, now in its second stop following a fourmonth run at the Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wis., provides a comprehensive overview of the varied experiences of family in the 21 st century, which often defy blood, law and convention. But the images rarely stoop to provocation for its own sake, instead providing eloquent and unsentimental dispatches of family life as it is. The common thread is the invisible bond between people entwined in one another’s lives who are coping with challenges and imperfections through love and forbearance.
They range from Nina Berman’s images of a Marine veteran whose face has been horribly disfigured as a result of a suicide bomber attack in Iraq preparing to marry his high-school sweetheart to Catherine Opie’s self-portrait of herself as a butch-lesbian mom nursing her child.
The exhibit includes photographs by Chris Verene depicting a young woman living with her two small children variously in a car and in an abandoned restaurant and a slideshow by Carrie Levy chronicling through both visits and absence a federal prison sentence served by her father when she was 15 years old. Both attest that whatever calamities strike, family is never suspended or put on hold.
No irony intended whatsoever: The kids are, indeed, all right.
Alison Ferris, the curator at the Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wis. and organizer of the kids are alright exhibit, will give a free guest lecture at the Weatherspoon Art Museum on June 13 at 6 p.m. A reception at 5 p.m. precedes the lecture. The Weatherspoon is located at the corner of Tate and Spring Garden streets. Call 336.334.5770 for more information.